Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.
– Franz Kafka, major 20th century Czech writer
Late at night throughout the years of writing my novel, A Village in the Fields, sometimes I would daydream or, more appropriately, I would “nightdream.” One of my fantasies was having my novel taught in an Asian-American Studies class. One of the PR campaigns that I undertook last month was to send a press release to the approximately 90 Asian-American/Ethnic Studies programs or departments in universities and colleges across the country. This was my first attempt at writing a press release, so I admit that I didn’t quite refine my message and present a distinct call to action, but I received a respectable 10 percent response rate.
All of the professors who responded – they ranged in departments from history, English, Asian American Studies, and Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies – sent their congratulations. Professor Peter Kiang, director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts commented that my novel is “very relevant” and another professor at Washington State University noted that he looked forward to reading it and perhaps teaching the book in next fall in his multicultural literature class.
I’m very fortunate to have the textbook director at San Francisco State University as a long-time friend – our kids went to elementary school together – and be such an enthusiastic supporter. Wendy Johnson put an advance copy in front of two Filipino-American professors at SFSU – Dr. Dawn Mabalon, associate professor of history, and Dr. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, associate professor of Asian-American Studies. One busy morning at work, Wendy texted me that Dr. Tingtiangco-Cubales was assigning my novel as part of the reading list for her AAS 352 Filipina/o American Literature, Art, and Culture class. The rest of the day was a happy blur.
Dr. Tintiangco-Cubales, whom I met at the Bold Step event in Delano over the Labor Day Weekend, invited me to attend her class in mid-September to give a reading and participate in a discussion/Q&A with her students, who are juniors and seniors. I can’t remember the last time I was around college students, but what a delight it was to be around so many bright, energetic and engaged, thoughtful, and passionate students!
I read the same excerpt as I did from my book launch party at Eastwind Books of Berkeley – two scenes a third of the way into the book in which my protagonist, Fausto Empleo, meets one of the Yemeni farm workers and befriends the Yemeni’s friends over dinner in their camp mess hall. Then we had a Q&A. At first, the students were shy, but soon the questions came out. I told the kids that it took 18 years from the time I began researching the novel to its coming out in print this year. One student asked why it took so long, and I let them know about getting rejected and not writing for three years, and trying to write while raising kids and having a full-time job. I think the students were two or three years old when I began my research!
The students were assigned a particular theme on the book and to elaborate on that theme, find supporting evidence of that theme in the book. One student, who had attended Bold Step, said that his theme was “risk.” He asked me what risk I took in writing the book. That required some thinking on my part, but then I told the class that initially I was afraid of “pissing people off” because some Cesar Chavez supporters would take exception to the tensions that existed between the Filipinos and the Mexican farm workers, which very few people outside of those who know the labor history are familiar with. Philip Vera Cruz’s memoir, Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement, by Craig Scharlin and Lilia V. Villanueva, was originally supposed to be published by the University of Washington Press but after pressure allegedly from Chavez supporters that the book was anti-Chavez, the press bowed out. Thankfully, University of California, Los Angeles Labor Center and UCLA Asian American Studies Center published the book in 1992. So I explained that I didn’t want to piss off Chavez supporters, but in the end the risk that I took was telling the story of facts and highlighting the Filipino-American contributions, which have largely been ignored or wiped out via revisionist history, without the intent of tarnishing Chavez’s image.
One student asked about the taxi-dance scene in the Los Angeles chapter, and commented that it sounded just like Carlos Bulosan’s scene in America is in the Heart. The last time I read Bulosan’s classic book was when I was a student at UC Davis, taking Asian-American Studies classes, more than 30 years ago. Did I lift from the scene? I’d have to go back and check, but I don’t think so. What happened in those taxi-dance halls offer common scenes that have been documented in such works as the 1985 documentary Dollar a Day, 10 Cents a Dance and short stories of Filipino immigrants in Bienvenido N. Santos’s collection, Scent of Apples.
After the class ended, students asked if I could sign their books. Of course! I was the one who was truly honored to talk one-on-one with the students and to sign their books. One student told me that the Yemeni farm worker excerpts were his favorite passages in the book and that he was happy that I had read it. What a wonderful instant connection that was for me! I understood what he meant! I felt the same way when I was at Jackson Browne’s concert at the Greek Theater in August and Browne introduced the song he was about to sing, “Sky Blue and Black,” as one of his favorite songs.
A female student who told me she was Arab thanked me for portraying positive Arab characters in my novel. She remarked that the only Arab characters she reads about are all negative because of 9/11. After reading my novel, she felt pride in her culture. I was very touched by what she said and so glad she shared that with me.
The student who let me know that he had attended Bold Step in Delano told me that he had posted a scene from my novel on his Facebook page, which goes to show that younger people do use Facebook. He said he has a particular issue with boy shaming and was happy that I dealt with the issue of weight in my character Arturo Junior, the little boy who grows up to become Fausto’s self-appointed nurse. The scene he was referring to involved Fausto trying to empower the boy in the face of taunting school children who teased him for being overweight and an English language learner. I based the character on an older classmate from elementary school who was overweight. He wasn’t picked on, but I let my imagination run away with Arturo Junior’s story. Again, I was glad that the student, who I think was named Tobin, shared that particular story with me. You never know the kinds of things that resonate with readers, things that you didn’t consciously write with those ideas in mind. But it was gratifying to know that there were instances of happy connectivity and communion.
Another student who is Ilocano and said it’s the first time she’s seen a book that uses Ilocano, as opposed to Tagalog, or Filipino, the national language. One male student told me that his surname is Abad whose family came from Ilocos Sur. He wondered if we might be related because I had told the class that relatives had told me I was distantly related to Fred Abad, the last manong at Agbayani Village, and that my father’s family hailed from San Esteban in the province of Ilocos Sur. The student’s revelation prompted me to personalize in his book: “We’re probably related!” And I’m sure we are because metaphorically speaking, we really are all related.
The students were assigned to create a “cognitive map” of my novel and turn them in. Nobody did, but when they do, I would love to see what exactly a cognitive map is and what the students created! I was so energized at the end of the evening that I didn’t even mind driving at night in the rain, finding my way back home. I thought of the student who shook my hand and congratulated me because he said it was a really good book. I felt the pride in the Filipino students because although we are the fastest-growing Asian-American community in California and in the US, we aren’t as well represented in literature as Chinese-Americans or Japanese-Americans, which is something that we as a community must change and should help to support one another.
Did this experience mirror my late-night fantasy of years ago? Yes, and more. As I experienced in Terra Bella and in Delano, sharing and discovering our Filipino-American culture is even more important to our community beyond my imagination. I hope the momentum continues to build. And to Dr. Tintiangco-Cubales and her amazing AAS 352 students: Maraming salamat po!